Thursday, September 22, 2016

Smackover Salt Creek


As a kid, I always dreaded the beginning of school and, once it started, I dreamed of summertime. I loved being outside and free. Oh, I had jobs—mowing grass, trimming hedges, washing cars, helping Pop clean up at job sites—but I had a lot of leisure to enjoy not having to worry about tests, math problems or term projects.

My friends and I went for the first swim of the year usually by the end of February. One warm Sunday in February when I was 14, our gang was torn between two bodies of water with the same name: Salt Creek. There were probably more creeks so named, but we only knew about two of them. They both originated in the oil fields. One was out beyond Dumas pasture, the territory of ornery Brahma cows and an alert and very protective bull named Sammy. The other was almost to Smackover, a distance that required someone in our group to acquire a car or truck. That Sunday, Tommy sweet-talked his Mother with all kinds of promised domestic labor and came up with the family sedan.

No worries about Sammy the bull; we were headed to the Smackover Salt Creek. Nine of us arranged ourselves like sardines in the De Soto. We were full of advice for Tommy, whose driving skills had not fully matured. He put up with our banter for a while but, at length, pulled over and said, “If y’all don’t shut up, I’m putting you out.” That did it. We started singing “Do, Lord” disharmoniously and continued the adolescent praise service the rest of the way.

When we arrived at the Salt Creek bridge, Tommy pulled off onto a little two-rutted trail and drove up into a fairly thick canebrake. There, we shed clothing and made our way to the high bank. No one had to teach us to walk carefully in snake country. We just knew to watch the ground (and water) for any movement. That day, we only saw one moccasin, peacefully ingesting a bullfrog. At first it looked as if the snake had legs, but those appendages were the frog’s, on his way out of this corporeal realm. He looked so resigned to his fate, stoically accepting his role as nourishment for the ugly snake.

We had a blast cannonballing, belly flopping as well as creating other diving techniques, such as the alligator, the plank and the helicopter. It was so great to be back in a summertime mode, however prematurely, that we ignored the rather pungent odor emanating from the creek…and us.

I don’t know about the others, but when I got back home just enough before church time to eat some cheese and crackers and take a quick shower, Mother hit the ceiling about the smell. “Where have you been! Get some Lysol and wipe that chair down when you finish. You stink to high heaven!” she cried. “We went to Salt Creek, Mamma. I’m fixing to take a shower.” She could not believe that we would be so foolish as to go swimming in February, but, since it happened almost every year, she let it slide. She made me scrub the tub, though, and throw the washcloth and towel away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Eating Habits


Back when I was on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, some board members had a meet-and-greet cookout at a deer lodge way out in the boon docks and my wife and I were invited. The spacious well-furnished lodge was on the Bartholomew Bayou and rather difficult to get to. As soon as my wife and I arrived, we were offered liquid refreshment and they passed around a tray of hors d’oeuvres. These were little chunks of fried meat on toothpicks that tasted like fishy chicken. We both had several. Then, just before the main course, our host held up a huge rattlesnake skin and mirthfully announced that the meat of that creature had been our cordial repast. My wife and I looked at each other with that “Oh, well, the deed is done” look on our faces and moved forward to more familiar fare—rib eye steaks and baked potatoes.

I tell that story to assert that most of us like to know what it is we are eating before ingesting it. Sushi bars have all their fish, eels, squid, shrimp, etc. out there in plain view. That way you know what you are getting. Some people are squeamish about eating raw fish, but I imagine our ancestors did so a lot. I love that scene in Castaway in which Tom Hanks learns to spear fish and eat them still wiggling. Elia (Charles Lamb) wrote a piece on roasted pig in which he asserted that cooking came to be in this fashion: a man kept his pig in his house. His house burned to the ground. The man touched the hot pig in the ashes and put his fingers to his lips. Yum. Thus, cooking was born.

Historic Washington State Park had a week-long encampment and reenactment recently and those assembled tried their hardest to be authentic 19th Century soldiers. Some had live chickens in cages. I watched a bevy of them, who obviously had but little experience cleaning farm critters, preparing a big hen for the pot. It took a long time, and the carcass looked untidy as all get-out. I was told later that they were so hungry that they took the chicken up before it was well done and some got sick. I have a tendency to cook chicken to unsavory hardness on the grill. A well-done hamburger is one thing but a scorched chicken is quite another.

My Pop had strange tastes and I usually ate what he ate, be it tripe, raw oysters from the can, brains and eggs, dry salt meat, pickled pig’s feet or sardines. Tripe is cow stomach and Mother used to bread it and fry it. It smelled good cooking and I enjoyed eating it, though it was quite chewy. It took a while for me to develop a taste for raw oysters, but when I started adding Louisiana hot sauce like Pop, I managed well. Hog brains scrambled with eggs had a musky taste, but that just made the dry salt meat, the constant companion of that dish, taste better. Pickled pig’s feet, sardines and sharp cheddar with crackers were usually Sunday evening meals. Mother cooked a major lunch on Sunday, so we were on our own the rest of the day. Rarely there was some fried chicken left, but more often we had Pop’s exotic stuff. As far as I know, he never ate rattlesnake, though.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Water


I am told that amniotic fluid is identical to ocean water in its makeup and that our bodies are mainly water. Considering the preponderance of H20 on the planet, its influence upon literature is not surprising. Our most ancient extant tale, Gilgamesh, relates the flood story paralleling in several passages the flood in Holy Scripture. And Homer’s work is full of water, as is Beowulf. Some of the best stories of the 20th Century written in English are all wet, in the best sense. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim swim in the complexity of the human condition. The main character of the greatest American novel is the Mississippi River itself—of course I refer to Huckleberry Finn. The second greatest American novel, Moby Dick, is likewise afloat in the dark turbulence of self-discovery.

Consider the vast waterish themes of the Bible: The world came from a formless void in which darkness was upon the face of the deep. Noah withstood the worst storm ever recorded. Moses led the Hebrews through the Red Sea on dry land. The prophet’s axe head floated and leprous Naaman came up pink from the murky Jordan. Elijah soaked the sacrifice, taunting the heathen, and Yaweh’s fire lapped water up. A glass of water offered in the name of a prophet will get a prophet’s reward. The rich man in Hades wanted his poor servant to give him just one drop of this precious substance. Jesus strolled on water and told the Samaritan woman at the well about water springing up to eternal life. All the followers of the Lord baptized folks with or in water and finally, in Revelation 4 verse 6, we see God himself sitting on his throne before a sea as calm as glass. That must mean everything makes sense to him. From the churning chaos of creation to the crystal sea, water tells our story.

There is an odd report in Second Samuel 23:13-19. After a furious battle with the Philistines, David longed out loud for water from his hometown, Bethlehem, which was under the control of the enemy. Hearing his desire, some of his mighty men took off for Bethlehem and fetched him some water. But David would not drink it because it was to him like the blood of those men who had risked so much to get it. He poured it out as a drink offering to the Lord. In the Christian worldview, that is likely a foreshadowing of the mightiest man of all time pouring out unto the Lord a sacrifice for all mankind. He gave his righteous life in exchange for the sinful life of all who believe in turn to him in repentance. Considering that heaven is the home of the redeemed, that sacrifice is like water from home.

When I was eight, Mother and I visited my sister in Boston. The water tasted horrible up there. I could not wait to get back home to drink a huge quaff of water that tasted right. According to Psalm 46 (which Shakespeare himself probably translated for King James) there is a river flowing from the throne of God. That water tastes right.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hypocrisy


Literature is full of satirical and other corrective works about mankind’s hypocritical propensity. Shakespeare is full of hypocrites. One of the most expertly drawn is King Claudius in Hamlet. He pretends to be God’s honest representative on earth and yet on the inside he is murderous, adulterous and, by Elizabethan standards, incestuous. In short, he is the worst kind of scoundrel in the elaborate trappings of royalty. Iago in Othello is another out and out hypocrite. Even though this bigot is filled with lies, lust, manipulation and ambition, he is so skillful as a hypocrite that he boasts the nickname, “Honest Iago.”

The French are particularly good at identifying and portraying the hypocritical. Consider Moliere’s heavy-handed satire Tartuffe, in which the title character, an ostensibly pious priest, is actually lustful, greedy and thieving. American writers are quite good at nailing the hypocrite, too, as in novels such as Elmer Gantry and poems like “Richard Cory.” The title character of this latter work gives the impression of having everything that would make one happy, but in reality he is so miserable as to give up on life.

I can’t help but look into more ancient literature on the subject. One certainly finds it in Aesop, Boccaccio and Chaucer. Certainly we confront well-drawn examples of it in scripture. After ingesting the problematic pomegranate, Adam tried to hide. The fig leaf shorts gave him away to God, to whom no secrets are hidden. Interestingly, God seems to understand Adam’s hypocrisy and provides a buckskin outfit, having presciently shed first blood as a covering.

We also think of Tamar, who pretended to be something she was not in order to receive a lawful heir and King Saul, who tried to “clothe” David with his own armor, thereby crippling him. But David rejected this “mask” and succeeded against all odds by being himself—a shepherd boy with a shepherd’s weapons. He gave Goliath a headache no aspirin could cure.

Perhaps you remember prideful Nebuchadnezzar, who wore the mask of Godlikeness. “Look what I have done here in Babylon,” he said, not giving deity a second thought. So God stripped him of this prideful “mask” and showed him that, without God, he is no more than a beast of the field. Belshazzar had similar pride as his progenitor, demonstrating his “power” by drinking wine from Jehovah’s cups. That is when the writing on the wall cut through everything and stripped him of his kingdom.

Of course, in the New Testament, Judas was the ultimate hypocrite, even to the point of that betraying kiss. Peter’s hypocrisy was also exposed when he denied even knowing the Lord. Interestingly, he became a powerful preacher in the Book of Acts, though he still had a touch of hypocrisy concerning food. Paul set him straight on that one. In the Christian worldview, the sacrifice of Jesus is the covering for mankind’s bent towards hypocrisy. Scripture teaches that his followers are being conformed to his image and that God sees those who believe as pure through that sacrifice.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

How Tweet it is


Communication was not as instantaneous in 1956 as it is today, 60 years later. I started to work as a bicycle messenger for Western Union that year and I learned how the system worked. If a mother in El Dorado wanted to send some money to her son in Houston, she would come to our office and fill out the papers, handing over the money to be “sent” and a small fee. The teletype operator would then communicate with the Houston office and a messenger there would deliver a notification to the son’s address as specified that some money had “arrived” at the Western Union office and the son would go pick it up. Similarly, I delivered a lot of money order notifications in El Dorado and people were glad to see me coming.

Occasionally, however, some would get the idea that you could “wire” other things besides money. One lady wanted to wire a gallon of buttermilk to her son in California. I appreciated the kindness of the clerk as she explained to the lady that we did not actually attach things to a wire and send them along. But my point is that communication was a little more difficult 60 years ago than it is today. For example, I had occasion to deliver messages to the telephone company from time to time and witnessed an expansive switchboard, staffed by a dozen or so operators. The hum of voices in that place let you know that people were calling each other regularly in El Dorado: “Operator,” “Number please?” “That line is busy,” “Just a moment,” “That phone is out of service,” etc. These were the days before El Dorado had dial phones and people relied on the operator to connect them to their party.

Our pre-dial phone number was 2226J. I was with Pop, who was not a frequent telephone user, when he had to make a call home from a local lumber company. He picked up the phone and waited until he heard the kind voice on the other end say “operator.” Then Pop gave the number as he had it in his head, “Three deuces, a six and a Jack.” Apparently, the operator had no problem with his way of presenting the number and he was connected forthwith.

Sixty years later we have cell phones, e-mail and other Internet features such as twitter. These possibilities for instantaneous communication can and do get people into trouble. When I was a kid, “secure” communication meant going on a camping trip to the Ouachita River and talking to buddies, knowing that what was said on the river stayed on the river. If any of those communications were “leaked” the consequences were far beyond ostracizing, even to the point of exile and loss of reputation. Kids learned to be careful with what they said because of the severity of the consequences for breaching confidences.

Thus, we were thoughtful before speaking, pondering the possible consequences of our words. That is why I like good poetry. The artist struggles until the words are exactly right for expressing, as far as possible, an accurate sensory impression of what is in her head. Today, all of us, especially those who would lead, must think before speaking, writing or tweeting. How tweet it is!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Leader's Voice


Washington, Arkansas’s Mayor John Eakin, who was also editor of the Washington Telegraph Newspaper, managed to keep a sane point of view at a time of confusing foment. Not a single Union soldier had been to his city during the War Between the States, but at the end of the costly and bloody conflict, troops from Michigan came marching in, ostensibly to keep order. Emotions amongst the citizenry ranged from fear to resentment to anger to frustration. So, the Yale-educated mayor wrote a poignant editorial for the paper and made an impassioned speech.

In these, he made it clear that all duties of patriotism concerning the Confederacy died when President Davis and his cabinet were captured and when the Southern congress dispersed never to re-form. He also mentioned the final surrender of the last army of the South under General Smith. He held out no hope of the reassembling of the Confederate government. Mayor Eakin showed the futility of allegiance to that government for, in his words, “nothing remains to which allegiance may attach.”

His argument was clear, concise, cogent and apparently well-received by the majority of citizens who just wanted to regain a sense of normalcy. Many agreed when the mayor looked at the flag of the United States flying in front of the courthouse and said, “It is good to see the old flag flying here again.” But there were those who could not accept the new configuration. To these, Eakin said they should find a new country, probably meaning Mexico just to the south. Those who stayed, the great majority, were required to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States which included this phrase: “I will abide by…proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

The wife of a local former slave-holder in Washington, Mrs. Carrigan, made an entry in her dairy just after the war expressing great concern for former slaves who were homeless, wandering about the streets of Washington with no place to lay their heads. I know that must have been a terrifying condition with no local prospects for a livelihood in the place called home for so long. The price of freedom was great for all concerned. But freedom finds a way in the United States of America.

In every age, leaders emerge like John Eakin, who energetically acted as educator and encourager of the populace through his editorial skills and rhetorical acumen. Eakin had the gift of seeing what we sometimes call “the big picture.” Provincial in his personal tastes, he was nonetheless cognizant of the world beyond his borders. He had read history and he had a deep understanding of the human heart in conflict with itself. He knew as we often forget that there was not a single motive for the great war, but many motives, some of them wildly contradictory. And, mainly, he knew the necessity for a powerful persuasive voice, which he provided eloquently.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gratitude


Noses turned up at manna made God burning mad. But, Moses prayed and the fire went out. Like Moses, true leaders pray for their people. Remember Daniel in chapter nine of his book? He repented on behalf of his people and asked God to deliver them because of his mercy, not because of any goodness on their part. We even have a record of Jesus praying for us here in the 21st Century in John 17. He was praying for the disciples and then shifted to those who would believe because of their efforts—that’s us. What did he pray for? Unity. At one point, he even said the world would believe in him because of our love for each other.

But, back to that manna. I cannot imagine complaining about food sent from Heaven, can you. It just about had to be the perfect food, with all the ingredients to nourish people in a top notch fashion. But they were tired of it. The word “manna” is the equivalent of the Hebrew “what’s this stuff?” (I heard that on television from a Catholic priest). In the Book of Numbers we read that the travelling horde of Hebrews following Moses to the promised land got to thinking back about those good fish they used to eat. They were so readily available in the Nile and the stock ponds. They also longed for cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks and garlic. None of these delicacies were available out there in the wilderness. Manna was not enough for them—they wanted meat.

In effect, God said, “They want meat? I will give them meat to eat until it comes out their nostrils.” He sent an overabundance of quail, blown in from the sea. There were so many! They were lying three feet deep all around the camp and a day’s walk in every direction. Each man gathered close to two tons of quail. So, they had a quail feast and their complaint and gluttony was so displeasing to the Lord that many got sick and died.

There was other complaining going on, too. Even Moses complained to God that he was not able to lead those folks all by himself. But that kind of prayer did not bother God at all. He simply had Moses name 70 elders of the people as helpers and placed an anointing to prophesy upon them. The end of that story is that the people complained about a couple of Elders—Eldad and Medad—who were not selected as part of the 70 and yet were prophesying. Moses’ response was cool. He said, let them prophesy. I wish all of you would do so.

I conclude that the God of the Bible hated complaint and we see later that he loves gratitude that results in contentment. In effect, gratitude is riches and complaint is poverty. When God told Adam he could have all the fruit of the garden except that from one tree, he should have been grateful and content. Moderation would have saved a world of trouble.